Written by Mark McElroy

We stand on uneven ground.

Blisters of volcanic rock punctuate the rock beneath our feet: basketball-sized domes of long-cooled lava worn smooth by the sensible shoes of tourists. Cracks and fissures lace each mound. In these, spatters of grey lichen and patches of hardy moss thirve, despite all the foot traffic.

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I look up. Patchy clouds checkerboard the sky. The sun peeks out. The volcano in the distance blazes with color: white snowcaps, grey stone, brown earth, green trees. Glacial melt from that mountain feeds the wide stream in front of us, producing water bluer than the bluest sky.

That stream feeds a waterfall all the guides feel the need to apologize for. “It’s no Niagara,” the ship’s excursion leader said yesterday. “It’s more like steep rapids,” our driver said today.

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It seems a shame to me, though, to fail to appreciate these falls for what they are: short, stout, loud, powerful. After taking a tumble, the water shoots through narrow channels in the volcanic crust, bursting out into a wide lagoon. There’s some kind of magic in the process, because the runoff from the mountain is almost turquoise, but after its trip through the chutes at our feet, the water in the lagoon is emerald green.

Getting here has taken time. Puerto Montt has its charms, but is less of a destination and more a gateway. Puerto Varas, the “City of Roses” between Puerto Montt and the falls, is dotted with touristy handicrafts shops and marred by a gritty little casino so divorced from the look of the twon that it might as well have been dropped in from space.

But once these towns unravel, the countryside begins. One one side of the road: a massive silver lake. On the other: green pastures sloping upward, gently at first, and then suddenly shooting skyward in the form of jagged volcanic hills. Llamas, their expressions as placid as a buddha’s, munch bright grass and watch us drive by.


We can forgive the gritty ports their touristy excesses. We can even forgive the picked-over buffet our driver subjects us to on the way back — the one with the dried-out lamb and the sad little side dishes of overcooked pasta and pale, unrecognized vegetables.

This brief moment — this one, when the sun breaks through the clouds, and the top of the volcano is exposed against a perfect sky — is worth the time and effort involved in getting here and back.

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Mark McElroy

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